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Tennessee's defense is willing to risk big plays for three-and-outs

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Missouri's defense could slow down the Tennessee offense pretty well. It BETTER, at least, because the Vols' defense is stout.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

DE
Derek Barnett (6'3, 257, So.) -- 42.0 tackles, 9.5 TFL (7 sacks), 1 PBU
Dimarya Mixon (6'4, 259, So.) -- 6.0 tackles, 2 PBU
Chris Weatherd (6'2, 226, Sr.) -- 8.0 tackles, 1 TFL (1 sack)

DT
Owen Williams (6'0, 297, Sr.) -- 17.0 tackles, 5.5 TFL (1 sack), 1 PBU
Kahlil McKenzie (6'3, 344, Fr.) -- 12.5 tackles, 1 FF

DT
Kendal Vickers (6'3, 286, So.) -- 11.5 tackles, 1 TFL
Danny O'Brien (6'2, 301, Jr.) -- 10.5 tackles, 2 TFL (1 sack) (8 games)

DE
Corey Vereen (6'2, 249, Jr.) -- 24.0 tackles, 7 TFL (2 sacks), 1 PBU
LaTroy Lewis (6'4, 256, Jr.) -- 17.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 PBU

Technically, Tennessee's defense has regressed a bit. The Vols ranked 12th in Def. S&P+ and currently stand at just 22nd this year. The Vols' pass rush has slipped to 87th in Adj. Sack Rate, and if you get past the line of scrimmage, you can go a long way in the run game -- UT ranks 17th in rushing success rate but 105th in rushing IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of the successful plays). The Vols have allowed 13 rushes of 20+ yards (58th in FBS) and five of 40+ (87th).

There's a risk-reward ratio here that will probably serve UT well against Missouri. Even though the Mizzou run game has improved in recent weeks, a) it's only improved a little bit, and b) most of said improvement has come in the efficiency department. There are no gaping holes, no 50-yard gains. In fact, only two schools have managed fewer 30+ rushes than Missouri (2): Georgia State (1) and UCF (1). Not the most sterling company in the world there.

Of course, big plays are pretty volatile things. We know Russell Hansbrough can break off a 50+ yarder; he's done it plenty of times before even if they haven't come this year. And we've seen both Ish Witter and Tyler Hunt come up with big plays, even if some of them came on receptions.

The key will be the down-to-down efficiency. We saw against BYU that Missouri was able to at least carve out two or three yards running on first down and opening up options on second and third down. This isn't optimal, but it worked for 20 points and came close to working for more. If Mizzou can at least avoid negative plays, and if the line (and play-calling) can keep Derek Barnett off of Drew Lock, then the Tigers can avoid disaster.

WLB
Jalen Reeves-Maybin (6'0, 225, Jr.) -- 72.0 tackles, 11 TFL (4 sacks), 3 PBU, 2 FF
Cortez McDowell (6'0, 240, So.) -- 8.0 tackles

MLB
Darrin Kirkland Jr. (6'1, 224, Fr.) -- 42.5 tackles, 5 TFL (2 sacks), 1 INT
Colton Jumper (6'2, 224, So.) -- 6.5 tackles, 1 TFL

SLB
Austin Smith (6'3, 236, Fr.) -- 2.0 tackles
Kenny Bynum (6'1, 227, Jr.) -- 6.0 tackles -- QUESTIONABLE

The loss of awesome OLB/DE Curt Maggitt to injury has taken away maybe the best or second-best weapon on the UT defense. Maggitt had 15 TFLs and 11 sacks in a bit of a hybrid role, and his absence (along with that of four-star freshman Quart'e Sapp) has left UT awfully thin.

Freshman Darrin Kirkland Jr., a one-time Mizzou target, has done well in a large role, and Jalen Reeves-Maybin is awesome. But while down-to-down proficiency isn't an issue (especially against the run), the Vols do have an occasional big-play problem. A breakdown is likely to be both rare and significant.

CB
Cameron Sutton (5'11, 186, Jr.) -- 24.5 tackles, 2 TFL, 4 PBU, 2 FF
Malik Foreman (5'10, 178, Jr.) -- 16.5 tackles, 3 TFL, 9 PBU, 1 FF

CB
Justin Martin (6'1, 183, So.) -- 15.0 tackles, 5 PBU
Emmanuel Moseley (5'11, 179, So.) -- 21.5 tackles, 2 TFL, 8 PBU

SS
LaDarrell McNeil (6'1, 209, Sr.) -- 18.5 tackles, 2 INT, 1 PBU (8 games)
Todd Kelly Jr. (5'11, 208, So.) -- 36.0 tackles, 2 INT, 2 PBU

FS
Brian Randolph (6'0, 200, Sr.) -- 47.0 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PBU, 1 FF
Evan Berry (5'11, 207, So.) -- 15.5 tackles

The Tennessee secondary is aggressive. The Vols rank 27th in DB havoc rate, and the four cornerbacks listed above have combined for seven tackles for loss and 26 break-ups, but somehow no picks. Only two opponents all year have completed more than 54 percent of their passes -- Bowling Green in the season opener (57%) and Alabama last month (78%). Over the last three weeks, Kentucky, South Carolina, and North Texas have combined to complete just 50%.

Of course, SEC opponents are averaging nearly 14 yards per completion, too. There's a bit of a big-play issue here. I'm not sure that's something Mizzou can exploit, however.

Special Teams

K
Aaron Medley (6'2, 189, So.) -- 43-43 PAT, 10-12 FG under 40, 3-9 FG over 40; 65 kickoffs, 29 touchbacks

P
Trevor Daniel (6'1, 248, So.) -- 48 punts, 45.7 average, 13 fair caught, 19 inside 20
Nate Renfro (6'1, 205, Sr.) -- 1 punt, 38 yards

KR
Evan Berry (5'11, 207, So.) -- 18 KR, 40.6 average, 3 TD (long: 100)
Malik Foreman (5'10, 178, Jr.)

PR
Cameron Sutton (5'11, 186, Jr.) -- 18 PR, 18.9 average, 1 TD (long: 84)
Alvin Kamara (5'10, 215, So.) -- 6 PR, 16.5 average, 1 TD (long: 50)

Tennessee's special teams unit has been tremendousThe Vols rank second in the country in Brian Fremeau's special teams efficiency ratings, and that's with some shaky place-kicking. UT is just 112th in field goal efficiency but first in kick returns, seventh in kickoffs, 20th in punt returns, and 58th in punting. The return game is terrifying -- it's produced five scores.

I was a little worried about Corey Fatony's leg midway through the game against BYU; it seems like his touchback rate is fading, and until he uncorked a beauty in the fourth quarter, his first two punts were relatively subpar. But it's essential that Fatony give UT return men the fewest possible opportunities. Anytime you see Berry fielding a kickoff, be afraid.